Victims of hate
Social landlords have a legal obligation to protect vulnerable tenants from disability-related hate crime. Emily Rogers finds out how they can recognise and stop abuse before it’s too late.
Twenty nine-year-old Antony O’Dell recalls how the abuse started at secondary school. ‘I used to get picked on quite a lot and put to the floor and kicked and punched,’ he says. ‘You name it, I got it. I suppose it was because they thought I was an easy target.
‘Then when school had finished at 3.30pm it started again. It makes you feel small and helpless and lonely. You feel you can’t do anything to stop them.’
According to research by learning disability charity Mencap, nine out of 10 people with learning disabilities have experienced abuse or harassment. But recently Mr O’Dell has learned there is something he can do.
Over the past year, Advance, a specialist housing provider for people with learning disabilities and mental health issues, has instilled new confidence in him by recruiting him as one of three tenant ‘actors’ to help other people with learning disabilities see that they don’t have to stand for abuse either.
Mr O’Dell acts out typical abusive scenarios which he has suffered himself as part of a training course to empower disabled tenants to recognise disability-related abuse, report it swiftly and ward off abusers.
The Oxfordshire-based housing association, which owns around 1,000 homes and manages a further 500, started the course in June last year in response to growing concern about the safety of its tenants. The move was well timed - it came as the Equality and Human Rights Commission finalised a report which aimed to demonstrate, in unflinching detail, what can happen to individuals if social landlords and other agencies do not recognise abuse.
Hidden in plain sight, details the circumstances leading up to the deaths or serious injuries of 10 disabled people. Most of them were murdered by their abusers. Seven were people with learning disabilities, who had proven easy fodder for exploitation.
The victims’ brutal deaths often followed a series of less serious incidents directed against them. Housing organisations and others agencies had been aware of these events, but failed to act upon them.
The case of Steven Hoskin shows the horrific consequences of this type of failure. The 39-year-old with learning disabilities was found dead in July 2006 at the bottom of a 100ft railway viaduct in St Austell, Cornwall. He had been tortured for hours in his own home before his abusers forced him over the viaduct railings, stamping on his fingers to force him to let go. The ringleader of the group, Darren Stewart, a dangerous individual who was well-known to the police, had moved into Mr Hoskin’s bedsit months before, something his landlord Ocean Housing Group had been informed of. It received a tip-off from a police officer who warned a housing officer not to visit the property alone due to Mr Stewart’s presence. There was not, however, any formal information sharing about his violent background.
Ocean Housing’s chief executive David Renwick says Mr Stewart ‘meant absolutely nothing to us and we had no knowledge [of his background] until we saw the serious case review the following year’. He says information was not shared with his organisation by the police and social services.
The 4,000-home landlord has since gathered census information on the vulnerabilities of all its tenants says its chief executive. This database is connected to the organisation’s telephone system, so that if a call comes from a household with a vulnerable person, it will be flagged up before the operator answers the phone.
All staff, including contractors, have been trained to spot the warning signs of disability-related abuse and the organisation is now included around the table with social services in safeguarding meetings, which Mr Renwick says would not have happened before.
‘You can respond [to cases like this] by going into denial, but we’re not going to do that,’ he says. ‘We’re going to keep on trying to raise awareness, keep reviewing what we do, keep learning, keep sharing and keep training. It’s almost like looking in a mirror at yourself.’
The EHRC report highlights disability-related harassment as a pressing issue for social landlords, which are legally bound to tackle it because of the Equality Act 2010. Disability-related harassment can be triggered by resentment towards disabled people who might be perceived to be getting preferential treatment, such as home extensions and higher rates of benefit, it adds.
Inquiry into abuse
Jackie Driver, head of good relations at the EHRC, led the inquiry. She says she sympathises with housing professionals grappling with this type of abuse, as it is often harder for them to recognise than other hate incidents - perpetrators could simply be singling out disabled people because they’re easy targets and perhaps even masquerading as their friends before exploiting them. But Ms Driver says social landlords need to start to ‘strip out’ whether incidents coming to their attention are disability-related, to enable them to act swiftly.
The key to this lies in gathering more information about victims and sharing it between housing organisations and other agencies. ‘We need to stop [housing] officers feeling shy or concerned about data protection,’ she says. ‘So there’s some training needed here.’
Domini Gunn-Peim, director of health and well-being at the Chartered Institute of Housing, says the root of the problem is that disability-related harassment has not been widely recognised by society at large. She says multi-agency awareness campaigns are needed, steered by disabled people, to get a single message out ‘about how we respond to cases and how we help to protect people’.
In the meantime, Ms Gunn-Peim says there is a ‘sense of urgency’ in her organisation’s ongoing work to help the sector improve its contact with other agencies to protect disabled people.
The CIH has been helping housing providers safeguard their tenants through its four-strong anti-social behaviour action team, which has been funded for two years by the Communities and Local Government department.
The team, which received £250,000 from the CLG for 2010/11 and £300,000 for 2011/12, has provided support and advice to nearly 300 housing organisations since April 2010. It helps landlords to use a ‘risk assessment matrix’, which determines what level of priority a case is given. The matrix was developed by the Home Office two years ago in response to the high-profile case of Fiona Pilkington, who killed herself and her disabled daughter Francecca after suffering years of abuse from neighbours.
‘In the past, many landlords were only looking at the isolated incidents and not seeing the bigger picture of cumulative risk,’ says Chris Grose, one of the team’s four advisors. ‘The feedback from housing associations is that this [matrix] has provided them with a consistent approach and a bit of a back-up to that gut feeling [that someone is at risk of harm] that the officials may have.’
Mr Grose says appointing a named ‘champion’ for vulnerability within the organisation for people to turn to with information, or giving contractors, such as plumbers, ‘concern cards’, to enable them to pass on any worries they have about the people they encounter, are other examples of emerging good practice.
Know your tenant
But customer profiling is one area in which landlords must improve, he says. ‘They need to use this information to communicate in different ways with different people, to ensure they’re giving people a fighting chance to report these types of incidents,’ he says. ‘It doesn’t make sense that we’re sending letters to somebody who can’t read, for example.’
Disability-related harassment is probably one of the most under-reported problems, because victims don’t feel confident to come forward, Mr Grose adds. He says ‘cuckooing’, the term given to abusers who move into their disabled victims’ homes, happens frequently and is a particular challenge for landlords.
‘These are vulnerable people. You can tell them to tell these undesirables to leave, but that’s never going to happen,’ he says. Instead,
Mr Grose suggests landlords should free the victim from the decision-making burden and the feared repercussions, by making it appear that the organisation is taking action against the victim for allowing lodgers to move in. This sends a message to the abuser to move out before they are forced out. If this approach doesn’t work, Mr Grose proposes taking out an injunction might keep the individual in question away from the property - however, he stresses that instances like this must be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. He acknowledges that the tenant may feel under more pressure if they believe they could lose their home.
If tenants do not tell their landlords what is happening to them, even organisations with the most exemplary safeguarding procedures can be powerless to act. Jane Sharpe, head of compliance for diversity and safeguarding at Wirral Partnership Homes, is planning an awareness campaign for residents later this year so that ‘when they notice that a man with learning disabilities has people hanging around him taking drugs - yet he always seems to be hungry, doesn’t seem to have any money or isn’t looking after himself - they know what could be happening’.
Antony O’Dell’s landlord Advance aims to ensure disabled tenants report incidents themselves through its training scheme Safety First. The courses, which 500 people have been involved in so far, are centred around actors playing out different scenarios that the people in the audience have experienced. For example, a young man being approached by someone masquerading as a friend, who then increasingly exploits him.
Training managers Martin Hampshire and Kathy Westall say one of the problems they find is that ‘people with learning disabilities can think name calling is acceptable’. ‘When you ask them if they’ve been picked on, they might say no, because they’re so used to it,’ explains Mr Hampshire.
The most important thing is to make individuals realise they are being abused. ‘If they witness a scenario they’ve been through being acted out and hear the language being used, they then realise it’s been used against them and suddenly realise it’s offensive.
‘Taking them out of the picture can help them see the situation more clearly
A disability campaigner’s perspective
Simon Green is a 36-year-old disability rights campaigner and tenant of 5,800-home Valleys to Coast Housing, living in Bridgend, south Wales. He has been a wheelchair user for nine years, due to a neurological condition.
‘I’ve come across a lot of people who have been quite horrifically abused on a daily basis in or around their own homes. It’s completely soul destroying in the way it affects people’s quality of life, and leaves them afraid to leave their homes,’ he says.
‘Some incidents have been dealt with very well by social landlords and police and others not so well, because people have not been believed, or the victim has been moved, rather than the perpetrator.
‘Abuse can start off with name calling, maybe people start parking deliberately over their driveway and stop them getting out every day, or leave glass or bricks in the pathway to stop the person being able to wheel their wheelchair.
‘Then it can gradually increase to full-on verbal abuse, to faeces being put through the letter box, windows broken and mobility scooters vandalised. In the majority of cases, it’s a drip, drip, drip situation, starting off quite mildly.
‘A lot of people have fear of reprisal, thinking: “If I report it, will it make it worse?” Some disabled people don’t realise it’s something they can report and a lot of them say: “I’ve been called a spastic every day of my life, I just put up with it.”
‘Housing associations need to do a lot more to try to recognise these incidents for what they really are. They will often just be written off as a “neighbour dispute” but it’s hate crime that’s occurring.’
The Equalities and Human Rights Commission’s Hidden in plain sight report recommends that housing providers:
- Involve disabled people in the design and planning of social housing, to ‘design out’ crime from future developments
- Put in place intervention strategies to prevent harassment occurring in the first place and develop responses to prevent it escalating
- Consider appointing a ‘harassment coordinator’, to help improve responses to incidents and to facilitate third-party reporting systems. This enables victims to report crimes to police via housing organisations
- Invest in an awareness campaign, to encourage victims to come forward
- Include provision against disability harassment within tenancy agreements and take action against breachers
- Ensure that a disabled person’s security of tenure isn’t compromised if he or she has to move to avoid harassment